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ELECTORAL COUPS: A rough guide to winning elections in Kenya

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The Supreme Court’s courageous act of annulling Kenya’s August 8, 2017 presidential election seems to have plunged Kenya into a deep political crisis, especially after the withdrawal of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka from the October 26 re-run. However, if the court’s decision compounded Kenya’s political crisis, it was not so much because it radically departed from Africa’s well-thumped jurisprudence on presidential election disputes. Rather, it was because the court inadvertently saddled Kenyans with an electoral coup — something that neither a resolute and courageous court nor a beleaguered and isolated opposition could contain, singly or jointly.

The Supreme Court judges and a renegade commissioner blew the cover off the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The strategically located co-conspirators within the IEBC were identified and named, but unashamedly stayed put. The IEBC threatened to revert to its factory settings.

Ominous indicators

The Supreme Court expected nothing but a fresh election held in strict accordance with the constitution and the law. However, barring a last-minute court intervention out of the many cases now before the judges of High Court and the Supreme Court, Kenya looked set for a coup.

Several ominous indicators pointed to the possibility of a coup: Externally, the contested presidential election re-run on 26 October was notably and explicitly endorsed by the United Nations, the African Election Observer Group, and the US-led “international community”, which downplayed fears expressed by the IEBC’s commissioner Roselyne Akombe and its chairman Wafula Chebukati that the IEBC, as currently constituted, could not hold a credible election. These officials told the world that the IEBC was compromised and was held captive by four commissioners, some members of staff and the Chief Executive Officer, who opposed the chairman’s proposed reforms.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander. The subliminal message of this militant posturing was not lost on the Kenyan public.

In a show of military might, the government sent the paramilitary and police mostly to opposition strongholds of Western Kenya, Coast, Nairobi and parts of the Rift Valley. There were also reports of militia groups allied to the Jubilee party taking a new form of Nthenge oaths in Nairobi’s Lucky Summer estate to the chants of “thaiya thai thai”.

Internally, signs that a coup was in the offing included the military-like poses of the Jubilee party’s leaders, who were seen wearing red berets and military fatigues (contrary to the law) in readiness to salute any order given by their commander.

On its part, the opposition withdrew from the presidential election and vowed that there would be no election on 26 October. It violently disrupted IEBC preparations for the new election in the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu. It remained intransigent, bloodied but unbowed, mobilised and charged, but isolated internationally.

The counter-coup

The C-word (coup) has been used by some Kenyans to define the significance of the 1 September 2017 Supreme Court verdict nullifying the 8 August election. None other than Uhuru Kenyatta, the would-be principal beneficiary of the IEBC’s “illegalities and irregularities”, rattled and rankled by the court’s decision, called the court’s verdict a judicial coup. He was echoing the dissenting Supreme Court judge Njoki Ndungu’s verdict in which she cast aspersions on the integrity of the majority of her fellow Supreme Court judges and of the judicial process that led to the nullification of the election.

However, Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup is a non-starter. It lacks the watermarks of one. There is no credible evidence that by annulling the presidential results the majority in the Supreme Court bench acted in haste, exercised their powers in an extra-constitutional or illegal manner, or declared an underserving candidate the winner of the 2017 presidential election – all backed by the threat or use of violence, against anyone and everyone resisting such a plot.

Uhuru’s charge of a judicial coup, therefore, served to divert attention from what truly imperils Kenya’s democracy: electoral coups.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state.

But before we get to that point, we must ask whether the concept of a coup hold the key to understanding the complexity of Kenya’s electoral politics at this juncture? Technically no, because in a classic coup d’état, the state is overthrown (usually through the use of violence) by a rebel or military group. In this case, it was the state that engineered a coup to subvert or overthrow state institutions, particularly the electoral commission. So if the Supreme Court ruling was a judicial coup, then the 26 October election could be described as an electoral coup, or a counter-coup that sought to defy or invalidate the Supreme Court decision.

An electoral coup is a fairly recent phenomenon but has striking similarities to a military coup d’état. In both electoral and military coups, the conspirators identify the strategic locus or loci of state power, which they attempt to infiltrate and control. They then use these centres of power to acquire the remaining levers of state machinery, and eventually the state. All coups succeed or fail to the extent that they are able to create and sustain a perception of victory once they have seized a strategic locus of state power.

The coup plotters deploy threat or use of violence against those who may resist them, and carefully identify their friends as well as their enemies and opponents whose capacity for resistance must be sabotaged or neutered sequentially or simultaneously. Some of these enemies must be targeted through a long-term process, but others must be taken by surprise on the day of the coup.

Electoral coups also adopt military warfare techniques, such as the use of psychological operation tactics (pys-ops) and the use of civic spaces of democracy, such as Kenya’s oligopolistic “mainstream” media, PR agencies and social media. These tactics are used to create and sustain a perception of the incumbent’s inevitable victory or invincibility, to fan and exploit citizens’ fear of political violence, to intimidate the opposition, to sustain a façade of the independence of the electoral commission, and to dominate the framing of the political contest and narratives of victory and loss. Electoral coups can be bloody or bloodless.

Kenya’s experience in its last three elections suggests that electoral coups are made up of these elements and more. The preferred locus of execution of these coups has been the electoral management body, the Supreme Court, or both. It usually harangues the opposition to go to court, not for justice, but as means of obtaining judicial imprimatur for its politically cathartic and legitimating value.

Military coups

Pictures of army tanks rolling down the city’s main street, soldiers in military fatigues with belts of bullets strapped across their chests patrolling the streets or standing guard around iconic public buildings within a capital city, the seizure and control of the state-owned national radio and television station by these forces, the continuous broadcasting of political martial music and “revolutionary” messages by “a redemption council” or “a revolutionary council” – these images are usually associated with military coup d’états, which generally set an organised army unit or units against the rest of the armed forces and society, which they dominate both by the threat or use of force, superior organisational ability, weaponry and the capacity to outlast any resistance.

In a paper published by the Albert Einstein Institution, Gene Sharp and Bruce Jenkins define a coup as “a rapid seizure of physical and political control of the state apparatuses by illegal action of a conspiratorial group backed by the threat or use of violence.” This speaks to the surprise, speed, means and the immediate strategic targets of coup makers.

However, there is more to the making of military or other types of coups. A military coup d’état is typically the ultimate pitched battle, asymmetrical warfare between the coup plotters who command an army or units of armed formations, on the one hand, and the armed formations of the state that are not party to the plot, on the other. The state could or could not be aided in its resistance to this power grab by civic institutions and unarmed but organised political groups, as well as rag-tag militia.

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system.

Coups are executed with speed, but take a long time to plan. They involve the identification, infiltration and control of strategic loci of state power. Usually, coup makers recruit key persons in charge of critical functions at strategic loci of state power, people whose simultaneous or separate but sequential acts, under the instruction of the coup plotters, enable the coup makers to take control of a strategic centre of state power, and use that to take control of the rest of the state machinery and to impose their rule on a people.

Coups in competitive authoritarian regimes

Competitive authoritarian regimes are states whose politics is defined by an odd mix of nascent liberal democracy and authoritarian carry-overs from one-party rule. These regimes are torn between democracy (with its strong local support base) and declining international support of its yesteryear benefactors (the West) who are playing catch-up with the rising authoritarian pull of a Chinese debt-bondage driven by a multipolar global system. Their politics is asymmetrical warfare, neither wholly determined by brute force (by the state security apparatus, state-sanctioned militia or opposition sanctioned militia) nor by civic actions, but by a mix of both, especially during general elections. Courts play an important role in recalibrating the balance of forces in this warfare.

Although military tanks on the streets of a capital city represent the dominant image of a coup d’état, there can be many other types of coups, defined by the locus of their execution, as there are centrally located levers of state power in a competitive authoritarian regime. The conspirators can seize these strategically-placed levers of state power and use them to control the rest of the state machinery.

In a competitive authoritarian regime such as Kenya, it is these loci of power – defined by highly centralised bureaucratic structures and decision making in the hands of a few – that are the prized targets of coup makers. The IEBC’s national tallying centre and the Supreme Court of Kenya fall into this category.

Elections are a perilous moment for such regimes. They present the ruling party with a dilemma: how to stage electoral contests that do not threaten the status quo but lend the regime a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Such democratic charades have great purchasing power among the self-declared “international community” (Western powers), especially in a world where political stability, as opposed to democratic niceties, is gaining currency.

Elections are anxious moments because they are a time when state power rests and shifts from one temporary locus to the other – from the substantive holder of the office of the presidency to the electoral commission or the judiciary. The electoral commission or the judiciary act as temporary custodians of state power, with enormous fiduciary powers. As the interim custodians of both state power and the people’s will, the chairman of the electoral commission or Supreme Court judges, acting singly or jointly, can declare any presidential candidate a winner according or contrary to the democratic will of the voters, the constitution and electoral laws.

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election.

What’s more, an electoral moment throws up multiple strategic vulnerabilities: the counting, tallying and declaration of election results and the resolution of any dispute arising from such an exercise. Any of these loci of state power can be seized and used to acquire the rest of the state machinery. Or a combination of all these points can be captured and used to acquire the rest.

Kenya’s electoral coups

Several acts, sequentially executed, in the run-up to and after the last three general elections in Kenya, seem to suggest that electoral coups have become the preferred mode of grabbing state power under the guise of a competitive election. These coups are executed through a process of infiltration, seizure and control of the electoral management body to produce preferred outcomes and through the use of a cross-section of state security to put down any resistance.

Since 2007, Kenya has experienced this form of power grab, partly made possible by the electoral management body’s acts of “human error, fatigue, and technological failure” – which always happen only in favour of the incumbent or the incumbent’s preferred candidates – and by the cynical invocation or use of the judicial system to legitimise such a power grab.

The 2007 Kibaki coup

Mwai Kibaki’s 2007 power grab surprised many, not least the Kriegler Commission, which noted the strange circumstances surrounding the final announcement of the results of the presidential election and the low-key swearing-in ceremony at State House on the evening of 30 December 2007, a day before the official expiry of Kibaki’s first term in office.

Protracted political stalemate at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the national tallying centre, could have spilled over into a crisis of legitimacy for the incumbent, denying Kibaki the strategic advantage of bargaining with his opponent from an advantaged position as the commander-in-chief of the all the armed forces who could exercise the full powers of the office of the president.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance.

Many Kenyans were surprised by the sight of the “Ninja turtles” that descended on the KICC just before the results were announced. These police officers – dubbed “Ninja turtles” by Kenyans because of their striking resemblance to the fictional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon characters – are mostly from the Rapid Deployment Unit of the Administration Police, the police unit that is under the command of the Minister of Internal Security and which had grown spectacularly in strength, capability and numbers during the Kibaki regime.

The political significance of the chaos at KICC – with the chairman of the electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, literally under siege – the hasty swearing-in of Kibaki at dusk and the growth in numbers and strength of a civilian-commanded police force under a regime that ostensibly upheld citizens’ right to protest and picket was not lost on the majority of Kenyans.

Similarly, the political significance of the lack of preparedness of all the armed forces, except the military, and the lack of co-ordination among security chiefs at various levels (district, provincial and national) was not lost on the Waki Commission that was set up to look into the violence that erupted after that disputed election.

These acts, coupled with the cordoning off of the KICC by the General Service Unit (GSU), the revelation that the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been infiltrated by the National Intelligence Service and rogue returning officers, and the opaque system of counting and tallying results at the KICC, suggested a coup plot via the electoral locus.

Kibaki’s 2007 “victory” out of a muddled electoral process was a coup; it relied on sequential or simultaneous acts of infiltration and control of a strategic locus of state power (the ECK) and used the threat of violence to neutralise resistance. It deployed police around the main entrances and exits of urban slums, cordoned off public spaces, such as Uhuru Park, for months on end and restricted public broadcasts to weaken the opposition’s ability to organise or mobilise protests against the regime.

The successful execution of a coup requires the active participation of some armed formations that have the capability to repress any anticipated forms of armed or civilian resistance. It also requires “neutral” or “professional” police and military forces – an unprepared police force, security committees that didn’t meet, and a prepared but professional army, which maintains its neutrality while the coup plot unfolds. Such a coup can gain legitimacy through the tacit or explicit approval of the international community, particularly countries whose military bases are located in Kenya, the UN headquarters in Nairobi, and strategic countries that Kenya relies on for military support.

Simply put, a Kibaki-style coup plot succeeds when it faces no credible or active internal threat from any other armed formation, except the unarmed civilian mobs of protestors or gangs armed with bows and arrows, who can easily be contained by the police and the paramilitary under the guise of maintaining law and order.

Kenya’s first successful electoral coup in 2007 was bloody. But if the securocrats and the Kibaki-aligned political elite hewed Kenya’s body politic “like a carcass fit for the hounds,” in 2007, then in 2013 they “carved it as a dish fit for the gods” with peace campaigns and “accept and move on,” messages.

How the Kibaki coup was executed and the resistance against it has informed the subsequent attempts. Though successful, Kibaki’s 2007 seizure of state power was seen to have had several weaknesses, which cost him the complete control of state power (a “nusu mkate” coalition government) and endangered real or perceived Kibaki supporters in opposition strongholds, especially in the Rift Valley. The resistance against it, nationally and internationally, nearly consumed the regime’s success.

Importantly, Kibaki’s plot had failed to create a perception of victory. His Party of National Unity’s campaign was seen as lethargic and as lacking an effective communication strategy: it failed to manage public perception (opinion polls) and to trumpet Kibaki’s economic achievements. Even its successful attempts to rope in top editors who authored “Save Our Country’ headlines was seen as a little too late.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Similarly, its diplomacy was wanting and no match for the diplomatic charm offensive of some of Kenya’s astute human rights and democracy activists who had contacts in high places in the West. It strengthened the opposition, the pro-democracy forces and the reform agenda against the regime. Importantly, it allowed too many concessions, especially the enactment of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The 2013 digital coup

The evil genius of the Jubilee party’s 2013 electoral coup was to turn Kibaki’s coup on its head: rewrite the old military coup d’état manual and distill out of it evil lessons with which to subvert Kenya’s democratic processes and institutions.

Kenya’s 2013 electoral experience was sublime. The electoral process was a well-designed psychological operation to create and sustain a perception of victory, coupled with mediated reportage and embedded intellectuals, as well as co-option of a cross-section of the civil society groups to preach peace.

Critical media coverage was disarmed through peace journalism. Media coverage critical of the IEBC was equated with inciting political violence. Claims by the opposition, which deserved a critical look, were brushed aside as acts of incitement. Jubilee ran a glitzy and energetic campaign. Its victory was prophesised by the talk of a “tyranny of numbers” that assured a win for the UhuRuto alliance.

 In 2013, the locus of the electoral machinery was relocated to the Bomas of Kenya (a rondavel-like auditorium that was created to host cultural events), away from Nairobi central business district and an easy location to secure. The election was choreographed as a national cultural event or a public holiday that culminates in the appearance and address by the president. Choirs sang to soothe the anxieties of a nation still smarting from the trauma of the 2007 general election, anxiously awaiting the announcement of the winner, while the electoral body’s commissioners, like members of a cultural troupe, took turns to announce the results.

Yet something was amiss. The biometric voter identification and electronic transmission of results failed. The numbers being beamed on the screen were not adding up; they were not even divisible by a factor that Isaak Hassan, the then chairman of the commission, said was the multiplier. Rejected votes seemed to have been the unnamed candidate in the race. There was no way to verify that the numbers presented by the IEBC truly reflected the will of Kenyan voters.

The result was strategically announced in the middle of the night to give security forces ample time to plan for any form of resistance. As many as 150,000 officers from different armed formations (Kenya Police, GSU, Prisons, Kenya Wildlife) had been mobilised, trained and deployed to secure the 2013 election, though this was not made public.

The coup de grace was delivered through a pys-op that at once painted Raila Odinga as the personification of political violence and harangued him to accept the results of the presidential election, and if he was dissatisfied, to seek judicial redress.

Aggrieved by the results, the Raila-led opposition went to court. The newness of the Supreme Court, the refreshing leadership of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a well-known human rights defender, and the court’s new olive green and yellow striped robes and no-wigs-or-bibs attire inspired confidence. However, the judges unanimously disallowed the bulk of the evidence the opposition had hoped would prove its case, citing constitutional time constraints.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

The Supreme Court’s own self-initiated process of examining the records of the IEBC failed the integrity test. The court let the IEBC off the hook.

Kenyans had to wait for the 2017 new-look Supreme Court bench to get a glimpse into how the bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice by the IEBC secretariat works to produce winners of presidential elections, and to get a sense of what goes on within secured spaces, away from the public glare, where IEBC clerks verify and tally the results of various polling stations.

The IEBC numbers on the 2013 presidential election, like its voter register, kept changing, and took an extraordinarily long time to finally be posted for public scrutiny. Without a stable register of voters, the “tyranny of numbers” became a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one could test, but a valuable tool for creating and sustaining a perception of invincibility.

August 2017: Robbery with violence

This year’s script was an amalgam of the 2013 and the 2007 experiences. Several reform processes and anxieties around insecurity during elections provided a perfect cover. The locus of the execution of the coup was the IEBC, buoyed by the mantra that no court in Africa has ever nullified a presidential election.

The 8 August 2017 election was preceded by a number of preemptive strategies and strikes, variously aimed at pro-democracy non-governmental organisations and foundations associated with key opposition figures with the aim of incapacitating resistance against the regime. The NGO Coordination Board’s attempts to close down the accounts of the Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation, the Kidero Foundation, and a foundation associated with Rosemary Odinga, Raila’s daughter, fall into this category. Libel laws enacted by the Jubilee government and the creation of a central government advertisement agency also came in handy when manipulating Kenya’s oligopolistic main-street media.

Resistance to an electoral coup was largely expected to rise from the core of Raila Odinga’s constituency and a few human rights and democracy non-governmental organisations. Jubilee went for both with speed once the result had been declared: indiscriminate state violence and attempts to close AFRICOG and the Kenya Human Rights Commission fall into this pattern.

How Jubilee executed this year’s scheme is a classic study on how a coup strategy was interwoven into Kenya’s electoral process and performed through routine acts of government functions, using the very institutions democracy depends on, without rousing suspicion among the citizens. A look at its key aspects demonstrates how an electoral coup works.

The Jubilee campaign, like the one in 2013, was energetic and glitzy. It was largely amplified by the President’s Delivery Unit’s advertisements: “GoK Delivers”; “+254 Tuko na Plus Kibao”; advertisements that claimed that Kenya had registered exceptional achievements in many fields, such as provision of “free” maternity services amidst a protracted strike by health workers. Jubilee made several campaign forays into what were considered swing constituencies or loose pro-opposition strongholds in Kisii, Bugoma, Kajiado and other areas.

If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Regime-aligned intellectuals, like Misigo Amatsimbi, writing two days before the poll, predicted Jubilee’s victory, complete with the numbers and the expected ethnic shifts in voting patterns. These numbers, expressed in percentage form, bear an uncanny resemblance to the figures IEBC would later disown in court, and variously call “data, provisional text data or statistics”.

Narratives of Jubilee’s victory, mostly by analysts who had simply ignored the confounding figures IEBC was beaming through the public portal, used “data” from secondary sources, used only form 34B, or relied on the incomplete records of the polling station results, the form 34A.

Vowing that Kenya’s presidential election was nothing but an ethnic census, where issues count for little, Misigo used the last census figures to approximate the number of votes that either Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta would get at varied levels of voter turnout among various Kenyan ethnic groups. In this analysis, Jubilee recorded a remarkable improved performance among the following ethnic groups: Somali, Samburu, Borana, Luhya, Maasai, Kamba and Kisii. Amatsimbi predicted 10.6 million votes (54%) in Uhuru’s first round win against Raila Odinga’s 8.8 million votes (44%). Misigo’s narrative and numbers don’t just add up.

Charles Hornsby had a similar prediction, which was based on a more sophisticated model that was gleefully rehashed by Bitange Ndemo, another regime intellectual, but which curiously sought validation in the hard-to-vouch form 34B after the declaration of the results.

Nor does “the Jubilee inroads into the opposition stronghold” narrative hold water. If issues do not count in Kenya’s politics, and only ethnicity does, then how could the government improve its electoral chances when the Jubilee government is widely perceived to be dominated mostly by the elite of just two ethnic groups and didn’t even attract any significant symbolic defection of notable ethnic leaders in the run-up to the August 8 election?

Infiltration and control of the commission

These numbers served an important role. They conditioned Kenyans to accept a Jubilee victory as something that had been scientifically foretold. They also enabled the narratives of certain victory, which gained currency immediately after the IEBC announced the results.

However, it is now clear that no one, not even the IEBC, could vouch for them. What is more, it is now clear how bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance account for what was previously excused as “human error, fatigue and technological failure,” and how these acts produce presidential victory.

Wafula Chubukati, the chairman of the electoral commission, declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidential election without receiving results from a substantial number of polling stations. Why did Chebukati declare the results of the election prematurely when the law allowed a few more days for a thorough job? Why was he waffling, lost in procedure, before declaring the results of the August 8 presidential election?

The Supreme Court found that numerous election return papers, notably form 34 C for the declaration of presidential results, lacked the mandatory security features, which raised suspicions that they could be fake. Why did Ezra Chiloba, the CEO of the IEBC, repeatedly remind Kenyans that the results being beamed through the public portal were results from 288 out of 290 constituencies shortly before the results were declared, only for the IEBC to disown these results as “data, provisional text data, statistics”?

Chiloba also told the BBC that some data entry clerk created an email account in the chairman’s name without the chairman’s knowledge, and used it to conduct about 9,000 transactions in the electoral database. Chiloba’s only regret was that the account was not created under a different (institutional) name. He did not question the ethical issue it raised: Why were these transactions conducted without the knowledge of the chairman? What motive was behind this?

According to the IEBC, in the 8 August election, there were more than 11,000 polling stations that were out of reach of the network coverage of Kenya’s three mobile service providers. However, in the fresh election on 26 October, this number had reduced drastically to only 300. This reduced figure was not accompanied by any report that showed that the mobile phone companies had made massive investments to improve network coverage between the August election date and the election date in October.

IEBC’s conduct reeks of bureaucratic mischief, malice and malfeasance. Chebukati and Akombe’s memos indicating that not everything was above board point to this. There can be no doubt that the IEBC is a compromised institution, infiltrated and controlled by those who control four of the now six commissioners. The devil is in the malicious detail of everyday bureaucratic decisions, procedures, rules and regulations. In the Maina Kiai versus the IEBC case, the Court of Appeal warned the IEBC against this kind of mischief. However, the IEBC’s defiance of court orders points to a compromised institution that enjoys the protection of the powers that be.

Hotspots talk

In the run-up to the August 8 election, claiming to have learnt from history, the Kenya Police, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the IEBC mapped, profiled and marked regions that they referred as hotspots. The state mobilised an unprecedented 180,000 officers from various armed formations, over 30 specialised armoured anti-protest vehicles and helicopters for rapid deployment. (Coup plots work best with a mixed force, capable of executing orders as given, but incapable of executing a countercoup.)

At first glance, the list of places labeled hotspots appeared inclusive, it contained both the incumbent’s and the opposition’s strongholds, areas that had experienced political violence in the past general elections. However, some state action told a different story. The police held protest control simulation only in Kisumu and Nairobi. Only Kisumu and Oyugis, both in the opposition stronghold, received body bags, ostensibly as part of first aid kits donated by an NGO. That’s a Kenyan first in the history of first aid.

The lopsided deployment of the armoured vehicles, body bags and rehearsals for protest control told a different story. It suggested a strategy informed by a predetermined electoral outcome, a contest with a known winner and loser, and predictably, where the results of the presidential election would either bring joy or disappointment.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

Hotspots talk was a camouflage. It provided a perfect cover for an armed repression of protests against the IEBC’s attempt to unconstitutionally and illegally make Uhuru Kenyatta the president of Kenya. Recent human rights reports now confirm that the police may have killed up to 67 people, mostly in opposition strongholds, and especially in urban slums.

Monopolising the narrative

If the violence of an electoral coup looks strikingly similar to that of a classic military coup, then how it monopolises communication in a pluralistic media landscape sets it apart from the latter. In a typical military coup in a state-owned media era, the seizure and control of the only broadcast house more or less guarantees the coup makers a monopoly over the most effective means of communication.

Kenya’s experience suggests that the electoral coup plotters used a markedly different approach to attain the same results. The idea was not so much to seize a broadcast house as it was to dominate the narrative on the critical aspects of the electoral process. This was achieved through various approaches, including intimidation of media houses, ordering broadcasting stations to not announce unofficial presidential results, imposing a reliance on the IEBC “public portal” (the pot of statistics and provisional text data, which the commission itself disowned), and investment in heavily PR-mediated news reporting and analysis.

PR spins

The PR spin on the results was remarkable. As Wandia Njoya pointed out, in reporting the results, the burden of proof was put on the opposition to “substantiate the claims”, not on the IEBC, the principal author of the confounding statistics, to explain the anomalies and irregularities, the processes, and the missing polling station data (forms 34A). Any coverage that deflected attention away from the IEBC was welcome. Favourable observer reports were amplified, while those critical of the process were suppressed.

The Cabinet Secretary in charge of communication and the government’s communication authority repeatedly warned Kenya’s “main-street” media against broadcasting unofficial results and threatened sanctions on any media house that would dare to broadcast them. These directives of questionable legal basis had one effect: they allowed the government to control the narratives on the election. Moreover, the government raided the opposition parallel vote-tallying center in Nairobi. This was an attempt to neutralise any competing source of information and make the citizenry dependent on the only one source of information, the one controlled by the compromised electoral commission.

Rollback of reforms

Whether or not the Supreme Court upheld or annulled the results of the August 8 presidential election, Kenya’s democracy was damned either way. The judicial coup would inevitably be followed by an electoral counter-coup.

The Supreme Court stood up to something insidious that has been gnawing at the heart of Kenya’s democracy since 2007, something that neither the Johann Kreigler Commission in 2007 nor the Supreme Court in 2013 managed to correct. Unlike Kibaki’s 2007 coup, which unintentionally produced comprehensive reforms, the 2017 plot seeks to upend the 2010 Constitution of Kenya.

The Court exposed the Jubilee government’s attempt to rewrite the Kibaki plot, whose ambition included the control of all centres of power that check the presidency. Momentarily, the court had wrong-footed a well laid-out coup plot whose full scope will, hopefully, become clearer once the unprecedented 300 election petitions filed against various candidates in the just concluded general election, especially those from the “inroad” constituencies, are determined.

A weird reversal of aspirations seems afoot. The government has created an incumbent-friendly electoral commission. It only awaits presidential ascent or tweaking to take care of any contingency, for example, the resignation of its chairman. If this becomes law, it will institutionalise all the IEBC’s bureaucratic mischief, malfeasance and malice that led to the annulment of the August 8 presidential election.

By Akoko Akech
Akoko Akech, presently a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, was the program officer in charge of the Society for International Development (SID-East Africa) and Institute for Development Studies’ book project, Karuti Kanyinga and Duncan Okello (eds.,) Tensions and Reversals in Democratic Transition: Kenya’s 2007 General Election, and the Working Paper Series on the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.  

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Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

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Politics

John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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Politics

South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Politics

Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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